Suffering: Richard Dawkins Contra Jesus

 Photo by  Stefan Kunze  on  Unsplash

Photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash

In touching on the issue of suffering, the Neo-Darwinist poster boy Richard Dawkins famously states in his book River Out of Eden, ‘The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation.’ He goes on to note in the wake of tragedy that people are obsessed with asking, ‘Why, oh why, did the cancer/earthquake/hurricane have to strike my child?’ Why did my innocent child go blind?  Why was my mother taken from me?[1] 

The issue of suffering, pain and distress bedevils us all.  It has been ill-engaging humankind’s most profound thinking from earliest days.  How do we think regarding suffering?  This brief post does not pretend to address adequately the issue of suffering.  However, considering the two polar opposite bents of the Neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins and Jesus Christ is thought-provoking and illustrative.  We see the stark tendencies of the current majority view of the scientific and educational community against that of Jesus Christ.  Both Richard Dawkins and Jesus Christ, for different reasons, eschew probing the ‘why’ of suffering.  Nevertheless, their contrasting ‘takes’ on suffering is clarifying.

Begin with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Most importantly, he is anxious to ward us off from asking ‘why’.  Suppressing the asking of ‘why’ is vital to his conception of suffering.  Lamenting that people have ‘purpose’ on the brain, Professor Dawkins almost chastises the human predisposition for seeking ‘purpose’ in suffering.  In passing, this strikes one as odd coming from a scientist. The very principle of science under which Professor Dawkins subsumes his study of evolution and upon which Bertrand Russell prominently elaborates is that science itself has a purpose, to form an accurate image of the world.

The necessary presupposition of this Neo-Darwinist’s conception of suffering is we must not read purpose into a universe of ‘blind physical forces and genetic replication’.  The universe is precisely as we should expect it.  Namely, it seeks the maximization of DNA survival into the next generation. As long as DNA and genes get passed on, says Dawkins, ‘it doesn’t matter who or what gets hurt in the process…Genes don’t care about suffering, because they don’t care about anything…Nature is neither kind nor unkind.  She is neither against suffering nor for it. It only matters as it affects the survival of DNA.’  Tragedy is as equally meaningless as good fortune.  The universe has ‘no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference’!  Though a critic can argue the survival of DNA is indicative of ‘purpose’, the Neo-Darwinist insists there is no purpose in suffering!  Suffering is simply the ‘by-product of evolution’.

            Now consider in absolute contrast Jesus’s illumination of suffering.  The book of Hebrews picks his view up when it says he (Jesus) ‘who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross’.[2]  This interpretation derives from Jesus’ own words.  He likened his death to a woman’s labor in birth.  He said, ‘When a woman is in labor, she has pain…But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.’[3]  There is no denial but recognition of the reality of pain and affliction.  No question.  A woman suffers in labor. Just last week, my daughter Karissa went into hours of intense labor finally giving birth to a beautiful, healthy son Beau. Women say ‘labor’ is their hardest physical activity – ever! One mother described it as feeling like her insides were being twisted, pulled and squeezed out!

            Labor is intense agony a woman must endure.  Similarly, Jesus’ cross had to be ‘endured’.  ‘Endured’ means he had to stand his ground before the cross’s tribulation.  He held out against the physical pain and the psychological humiliation.  He did not abandon the cross to escape the suffering.  England’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, resolutely held out against the continuous, Nazi bombing raids on England.  He famously quipped, ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going.’  The Neo-Darwinist and Jesus agree suffering is a given and something through which one must go.  Neither Richard Dawkins nor Jesus Christ contemplates life without suffering.

            The world-shattering contradistinction between Jesus and the Neo-Darwinist and everybody else is that for Jesus suffering is teleological.  Contrary to Richard Dawkins’ notion, suffering has ultimate purpose!! Suffering is not a wasteful by-product. It labors to a meaningful end.  Counterintuitively, for Jesus suffering finally results in joy! Admittedly, a hundred seeming contradictions leap to mind.  Nevertheless, there is a deep, universal principle promulgated here. Hours of excruciating labor leads to the beautiful, seven pounds of beauty and joy a mother holds in her arms.  Labor’s painful memory fades as the presence of one’s child brightens.  The torture of a Roman cross is unimaginable; yet, persevering agony finally results in joy.  Jesus’ joy is the profound sense of happiness of obtaining by ‘his own blood’ eternal salvation. Any repentant sinner who has saving faith may now have everlasting fellowship with God! 

            Is all suffering a Neo-Darwinist waste, a useless by-product, or, might it be, as Jesus claims, useful?  Is it meaningless, or purposeful? Does suffering only matter to affect DNA survival, or is it to be endured till ultimately blossoming into joy?


[1] My references to Richard Dawkins’ view of suffering are taken from the fourth chapter of his book, Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life: Science Masters Series. New York: Basic Books, 95-135

[2] Hebrews 12: 2

[3] John 16: 21

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Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.